The Lighter Side of the Lab
This alum combines science expertise with artistic skill for a successful and humorous side gig.
Ed Himelblau PhD’00 leads a double life — and it’s hilarious. As a biology professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, students find him in the lab hunched over a PCR machine. (Think Xeroxing but for DNA.) With precision, he wields a micropipette to transfer drops of liquid for analysis.
But those who visit his office may see him hard at work on something different. He sits at his tilt-top drafting table, perched over Bristol drawing paper, holding a dip pen. (Think fountain pen but simpler.) With equal precision, he fills in the outlines of one-panel cartoons destined for The New Yorker.
Himelblau earned his Ph.D. in cellular and molecular biology at CALS. Though he hasn’t won a Nobel Prize in his field, among cartoonists he’s already found nirvana — his droll drawings appear in a magazine whose pages were once graced by Charles Addams’s mirthfully macabre family, James Thurber’s harried husbands, and Saul Steinberg’s modernist musings.
He battled steep odds to join their legendary ranks. The New Yorker can get a thousand submissions a week, according to former cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. Each weekly issue has room for no more than 20 cartoons, not including one published each day online. Himelblau submitted dozens for two years before the first of several was accepted for publication in 2021.
His parents subscribed to the magazine when he was a child. And Himelblau’s love of drawing began at age 7, when he began poring through the publication’s pages and the comic strip, Peanuts. Linus and his pontifications on all things scientific fascinated Himelblau. Later, The Far Side and its googly-eyed mad scientists cracked him up.
Many of Himelblau’s cartoons have a lab setting. His characters often find themselves buried in foam, battling haywire gadgets, or, worst of all, reduced to eyeballs floating in puddles thanks to experiments gone awry.
“I try to break the perception of scientists as being overly serious because I’ve worked with a lot of different personalities in the lab,” Himelblau says. “They have their foibles like anybody else — they can be brilliant one minute, then superstitious, lazy, or sloppy the next. I’m trying to disrupt that serious veneer of science.”
Himelblau first started selling cartoons for $50 apiece in 1995 to Promega Corporation, a Madison-based lab supply company, which posted them on its website. His work later appeared on the covers of scholarly publications such as Molecular Plant and the Journal of Plant Physiology.
His thesis advisor, Richard Amasino, encouraged Himelblau’s hobby. “His cartoons were wonderful and never insulted anyone,” recalls the biochemistry professor. Amasino recently invited Himelblau back to give a seminar titled “A Cartoon Guide to Life in the Lab and the Classroom.” “It was one of those lectures where everyone was paying attention,” Amasino recalls. “People were laughing and having a good time.”
As an undergraduate at the University of California San Diego, Himelblau studied art history and took art classes while majoring in biology. His decision to specialize in the one-panel format came due to academic pressures at UW. He believed he could “knock out those cartoons pretty fast” between more scholarly endeavors.
But today he labors over every piece. He carries a notebook to jot down ideas. A current fixation is vortexers, a common laboratory mixing tool. “I’ve been thinking there’s got to be something funny about vortexers,” he muses. He mulls ideas for weeks, even months, and sketches and re-sketches drafts before going through a multistep process that involves scanning images and revising them in ink.
What makes a cartoon great, according to Himelblau? “It makes you laugh out loud, or it feels like a joke that must have always existed, but you didn’t know it until that moment. Suddenly, it’s just a great surprise,” he says.
When not at his drafting table, Himelblau focuses his research on brassica, a genus that includes broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. All of these are polyploids, plants with a duplicate genome, something that is a rarity among animals but can be an evolutionary advantage for crops. He cofounded Cal Poly’s Learn By Doing Lab, in which students give hands-on lessons to visiting middle schoolers, and his school honored him in 2018 with a Distinguished Teaching Award.
Since his days at UW, visual communication in science has seen an explosion of interest, thanks to the internet. When he started out, Himelblau joked, “I’m one of the top 10 molecular biology cartoonists.” Today, the notion of numerous science cartoonists doesn’t seem so absurd. It delights him when students drop by his office and see him drawing because he believes science and art complement each other. “There are more and more ways to do both, and a student’s love of one can feed the other,” says Himelblau. “I hope people feel the freedom to do what I’ve done.”
Laugh along with Ed!
Follow Ed Himelblau on his website, Instagram, and Twitter.
This article was posted in Basic Science, Offshoots, Spring 2022 and tagged Ed Himelblau, Richard Amasino, The New Yorker.